(The text is the story of the Canaanite woman, the Gospel
lesson for today.)
If you look through the Gospel lessons for the season of Lent, you will
notice that they are much concerned with the casting out or devils, beginning
with the story of Jesus' own temptations in last Sundays Gospel. They are
mostly stories of the miracles of Jesus-miracles of healing and miracles
of nutriment; and looked at as a series, they present in an orderly and
logical fashion, the message at Lent.
Briefly stated, that is a message of reformation - our reformation through
the power and presence of God in Christ, triumphing over our perversities
(that is to say, our devils), and giving us new life through the nutriment
of his word. Consider how all that is shown in the Gospel lessons: first,
we see Jesus in contest with the devil who presents all the forms of this
world's temptations. By divine power, by the sustenance of "every word
of God," he triumphs. "Behold, angels came, and ministered unto him."
Today, we have the story of the Canaanite woman and the healing of her
daughter. This story speaks of our own participation in Jesus' triumph.
We'll look at some detail of the story in a moment; for now, just
notice that she is a Canaanite. That is to say, she is a foreigner, alien
from the commonwealth of God. She stands for us, in our perversity. But
with humility and trust, she sees the grace of God in Christ, and comes
to share the blessings of his kingdom.
Next Sunday's Gospel speaks of devils cast out "by the finger of God",
and of the house of the soul, "swept and garnished". The casting out of
devil's, it seems, is not enough. The unclean spirit "taketh to him seven
other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there":
the clean and empty house is not enough.
Therefore, the Fourth Sunday's Gospel will tell us of the nutriment
which fills our emptiness: it is the story of Jesus, feeding of the multitude
in the wilderness. And then the lesson for the Fifth Sunday speaks of the
nature of the new life, the new condition of soul to which Lent's purification
and nourishment should bring us: "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles
exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority
upon them. It will not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among
you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let
him be your servant: even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto,
but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many".
Thus, the purification and nutriment of Lent are to bring us to that
life of charity which the lessons of Quinquagesima proclaimed; and thus
we are prepared to look upon and celebrate the Passion and Resurrection
of Our Lord.
That is the general pattern and logic of our Lenten Gospels. Within
that pattern, today's story of the Canaanite woman has its place, and we
should examine it more closely.
First of all, it is a miracle story. We've often spoken of the meaning
of Jesus' miracles, and I won't say much about that point this morning:
only to remind you, that the miracles are always signs, symbolic acts.
They are rather like the parables, stories that have a hidden, symbolic
meaning. Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus explains a parable. With the parable
of the Sower, for instance, he explains: "the seed is the word of God". And sometimes he explains a miracle, as, for instance the Feeding of the
Multitude. It is a symbolic act; it means, he says, that he is the true
bread, the word of God. The miracles are always signs, symbolic acts.
In today's story, the petitioner is a Canaanite woman. That detail is
itself symbolic: it means to say that she is as far as possible from having
any claim upon the "children's bread", any natural right in the nation
of Israel, the commonwealth of God. But she comes in humility and trust:
"the little dogs," she says, those who have no rights, "eat of the crumbs
which fall from their master's table." And the grace of God, altogether
unmerited by any natural claim, is not withheld: "O woman, great is thy
faith; be it unto thee as thou wilt." This Canaanite woman is the symbol
of all of us, who have no natural claim upon God's favour. Jesus' gift
to her stands for the free, unmerited grace of God.
Jesus' gift is the gift of wholeness. This is a healing miracle, and
the healing itself is richly symbolic. The healing miracles are, I think,
most subject to literalistic misunderstanding. People sometimes think the
meaning is that, if you have faith, you shouldn't get sick, or that faith
should eliminate all worldly ills - heal the sick and raise the dead. But
that is not the point at all. Certainly, God makes miracles, when he wills
and as he wills; but we have no reason to suppose that God wills that we
should live forever in comfort and security in some kind of earthly paradise.
That is not the point. The miracles are symbolic acts; and the miracles
of healing are signs of God's power to make our spirits whole; God's power
to rebuke the demons of our perversities, and cast them out. The wholeness
of the spirit is the wisdom to accept God's will, and triumph over this
world's ills, even over death. The physical healings in the Gospel miracles
are signs of that grace of God which makes us whole, which uplifts the
spirit to see in both sorrow and joy, in both pain and pleasure;. in both
death and life, in both Passion and Resurrection, the purposes of God.
Richard Baxter, a great 17th century Puritan divine, says it beautifully:
Lord, it belongs not to my care / whether I die or live
To love and serve thee is my share / And this thy grace must give
If life be long, O make me glad / The longer to obey:
If short, no labourer is sad / To end his toilsome day.
Christ leads me through no darker rooms / Than he went through before;
He that unto God's kingdom comes / Must enter by that door.
God owes us no miracles, but he gives us the best of all miracles; the
miracle of himself: and so we come, in humility and trust, to our Master's